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U.S. captures man who may be link between Iraq, al-Qaida

WASHINGTON—U.S. military forces in Iraq have captured a terrorist operative in Baghdad who reportedly belonged to a network affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The operative is said to be a midlevel employee in a network run by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a bin Laden associate who intelligence officials believe was behind the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan last October and was linked to a foiled terrorist plot in Great Britain involving the poison ricin.

Pentagon officials said they hope the detention will help prove that the regime of Saddam Hussein had solid links with bin Laden, as President Bush charged in making the case for war. But U.S. intelligence officials were more cautious, saying it was not yet clear what the operative, whose name was not immediately available, knows.

"We can learn a hell of a lot from him," a Pentagon official said. "It puts al-Qaida in Iraq."

The detainee had documents with him that appeared to link him to al-Qaida, said the official, who asked not to be named. But it was not known what evidence would link him to Saddam or why he was in Iraq.

U.S. officials also said Tuesday that they are detaining the head of Iraq's top-secret missile program.

More than two weeks after most combat in Iraq ended, the Bush administration is still searching for evidence to back its claim that Saddam had hidden weapons of mass destruction and had ties to terrorists. The fate of Saddam and his two sons is unknown.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops of the 82nd Airborne Division killed as many as 13 Iraqis Monday night in the city of Fallujah—a city about 30 miles west of Baghdad—in a confrontation whose circumstances were unclear. Military officials said the soldiers came under fire from a crowd and returned fire, but others reported that the soldiers fired at unarmed demonstrators.

The incident was by far the largest of its kind since Saddam's regime toppled and appeared certain to increase Iraqis' opposition to the presence of American forces in the country.

U.S. Central Command said in a statement that U.S. paratroopers came under fire by about 25 armed civilians mixed in a crowd of 250 demonstrators outside a compound the troops were occupying. Other Iraqi shooters were positioned atop buildings nearby, the statement said.

Military spokesmen were unable to confirm Iraqi reports of the number of dead.

"If people shoot at us, we will shoot back at them," said Army spokesman Maj. Dean Thurmond.

Iraqis marched through the streets of Fallujah bearing coffins, according to reports from the scene. They insisted that the crowd was unarmed and said there were dozens of wounded.

U.S. officials said Tuesday that those in custody among the 55 most wanted members of Saddam's regime include Amer Mohammed Rashid, a former oil minister who was also a weapons expert overseeing missile programs. The coalition now has 13 of the 55 most wanted in custody.

Rashid was the six of spades in the deck of cards identifying the leaders of Saddam's regime. His wife is Dr. Rihab Taha, nicknamed "Dr. Germ" for her role in Iraq's biological weapons programs.

The Zarqawi aide in custody is believed to be a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a radical Islamic group that effectively merged with al-Qaida in the late 1990s. Egyptian Islamic Jihad's chief, Ayman Zawahiri, is bin Laden's deputy.

Islamist groups such as al-Qaida and Egyptian Islamic Jihad have traditionally been at odds with secular Arab leaders such as Saddam, and there is dispute within the Bush administration over whether there is a link between Saddam and al-Qaida, with civilian Pentagon officials arguing that there is and the State Department and CIA being more cautious.

Zarqawi, who was born in Jordan, was wounded in 2001 during the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and sought medical treatment in Baghdad. His network is believed to have set up a poison and explosives training camp in an area of northern Iraq that before the war was controlled by an Islamist group.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Gerlin reported from Baghdad, Iraq; Guynn and Strobel reported from Washington.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.